Is the Atkins Diet Healthy?

At the height of the low-carb craze, Atkins was king. While many folks claim to lose weight following this plan, registered dietitians and other health pros are not fans — here’s why.

January 04, 2023

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Photo by: lacaosa/Getty Images

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Dr. Robert Atkins published the first version of the Atkins Diet in 1972 titled Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution. The diet plan called for eliminating refined sugar and most carbohydrates (including many fruits and veggies) while filling up on animal proteins like red meat, chicken, cheese and fish as a way to lose weight and improve health. Dr. Atkins believed that depriving the body of carbohydrates would force it to turn stored fat into fuel. Followers of the low-carb diet are also encouraged not to eat too much at once as Dr. Atkins believed the large amount of food would flood the body with glucose leading to fat production and storage.

Since its original launch, there have been updates to Dr. Atkins’ original plan, as well as numerous celebrity endorsements including Kim Kardashian and Rob Lowe. Today, followers of the Atkins Diet can purchase packaged food products, track their progress on an app and choose from three different diet plans to meet their needs.

If you’re considering the Atkins Diet for weight loss or better health, here’s what you should know and what dietitians really think of it.

Atkins Diet Basics

The Good

  • Free online site to help guide you
  • The Atkins Diet makes easy to grab-and-go bars, frozen meals, shakes, snacks and more
  • The diet plan and phases are clearly defined with specific rules
  • Customizable app available

The Bad

  • The diet is not balanced and eliminates many healthy foods which can lead to nutrient deficiencies
  • The research overall is conflicting and therefore is not scientifically sound
  • Its side effects can be dangerous and certainly unpleasant
  • Many rules to remember
  • May be unsafe for certain people including people taking diuretics, people with diabetes who take insulin or oral diabetes medications, folks with a history of an eating disorder, and those who are pregnant and breastfeeding. Speak to your health care provider or RDN before starting a new diet plan.

How the Atkins Diet Works

The Atkins Diet is done in four phases.

  • Phase 1 (Induction):This phase lasts 14 days and has you eating no more than 20 grams of net carbs a day (that's little more than a single slice of bread). Net carbs are calculated by subtracting total grams fiber from total carbs. Between 12 to 15 grams of carbs come from non-starchy veggies (called “foundation vegetables”) like tomatoes and Brussels sprouts.
  • Phase 2 (Balancing):In this phase you eat “foundation vegetables” to meet your 12 to 15 grams per day of net carbs. You can gradually add more veggies, berries, nuts and seeds to your diet. You stay in this phase until you’re within 10 pounds of your goal weight.
  • Phase 3 (Pre-maintenance): You increase carbs by about 10 grams per week on this phase until you reach your goal weight. Your menu continues to allow more foods including more fruits, starchy veggies, and whole grains.
  • Phase 4 (Maintenance):This is a lifelong maintenance phase to keep the weight off. Most maintain between 40 to 120 grams of net carbs in order to maintain their weight loss.

There are some newer variations to the plan such as Atkins 40, for those who have less than 40 pounds to lose and take in 40 grams of net carbs per day. Atkins 100 is a plan recommended for those who want to maintain their current weight and calls for 100 grams of net carbs daily. Other plans include Atkins 20, or you can do Atkins as part of intermittent fasting, or a keto version.

Although the Atkins plan has evolved over the years and you can now individualize your plan, only the most dedicated dieter can really stick to these goals long term. As such, it is really not a sustainable plan. You may also see folks go on the diet for several months and lose weight only to regain the weight once they go off it; then restart the diet. This ends up leading to yo-yo dieting, which is a diet pattern that is unhealthy.

Possible Side Effects of the Atkins Diet

Physically, there are possible side effects when you cut out most of your carbs, such as leg cramps, faintness, headaches and cold sweats. Although the plan does promote fiber, you’re probably not meeting the recommended amount of 25 to 40 grams per day, which can lead to constipation. Some followers of the diet also claim to have bad breath. Initially, the diet was promoted to include animal proteins that are high in saturated fat and cholesterol, however, with the newer plans healthy unsaturated fats and lean proteins are encouraged.

How Much Does It Cost?

You can register for free at Atkins.com and receive access to tools such as an online community, recipes and journal for your weight loss progress. You can also purchase Atkins bars, shakes, frozen meals, snacks, and more on their website.

Bottom Line: This is not a healthy or balanced diet that you can maintain for life.

The idea of restricting many delicious and nutrient-packed foods including fruits, veggies, and whole grains doesn’t make any sense for your overall health and enjoyment of food.

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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